The Difference Between Parole Officers and Probation Officers

Row of prison cells behind an open gate

The criminal justice field includes the practices, systems and institutions in which the government mitigates, deters and upholds social control for crimes. This includes rehabilitation efforts and sanctioning the individuals who break the law. You do not have to have gone to college to become a corrections officer at county and state level. In fact, many individuals who decide to become parole and probation officers tend to be non-traditional students or those that have decided to change careers midway.

In many instances a career in the criminal justice system is ideal for individuals who have experience in social work, sociology, family services and psychology. The skills required for these positions overlap with those required for criminal justice. These individuals may be able to receive credit for classes required for a criminal justice degree due to their previous education and experience. They will also have a good understanding of the system and the many challenges that are present in the average workday.

There are several different types of criminal justice and criminology degrees available from various criminal justice schools and programs. Many of these programs offer at least a portion of the degree online if not a complete online criminal justice degree, which can make them an excellent choice for those individuals changing careers or those currently working and looking to change careers. The several different programs include the Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice and Criminology, Certificate in Advanced Crime Analysis, American Justice System Certificate, Certificate in Criminal Behavior and post-Bachelor’s in criminology & criminal justice.

Parole and probation officers are individuals that supervise offenders who have been sentenced to non-custodial sanctions or those released from incarceration. There are some similarities between the two positions but there are also some large differences. One of the largest differences is who the officers supervise. A probation officer will supervise those who have yet to receive a sentence of incarceration for their crimes, while parole officers will supervise those that have already served their sentence and are released from incarceration.

For both the parole and probation officer there are four different job levels. The first level is Level I which is the most basic level, requiring entry-level skills and duties. Level II requires skills for full performance level for individuals in pre-entry programs as well as some training and guidance to other officers. Level III individuals are considered experts in their specific area and will provide supervision for those that have difficult and complex behavior. Level IV is the leadership level in which the individual will supervise other officers and manage divisions or sub-divisions.

Parole officers hold positions through the Youth Authority, Department of Corrections, or the Federal Justice Departments. They report to the parole boards and, in addition to supervising individuals that have been released from incarceration, they also provide recommendations and develop plans for the supervision of the person before he or she is released. Plans for supervision may include arranging job skills training, housing, employment, medical care, counseling and even social activities.

Probation officers are officers of the courts and they report to the courts. They will typically provide pre-sentencing investigations and reports for the courts. Additionally they will develop plans to help the client remain in free society. However they will also enforce all court orders and may need to perform searches, arrange for drug testing, seize evidence and even make arrests.

Another large difference between the two types of officers is the number of cases each will take on. Probation officers may be assigned up to 150 different cases if they are with juvenile offenders. However, those that work adult cases may be assigned as many as 2,000. The amount is dependent on the amount of necessary field work, travel and location. Parole officers typically have fewer cases than probation officers, with numbers ranging between 80 and 120 cases. This number is lower than probation officers as they must regularly meet with the officers and cover a much larger geographical region.

Besides completing a four year degree from a university of college, to become a probation or parole officer the individual must complete a probation or parole officer training course, and receive certification. Parole agents are also required to pass physical ability tests and have more experience with supervised casework. There is an additional training session required at the police academy. Those interested in working at a federal level will require a year of graduate level criminal justice courses.

Probation and Parole Bureau Standard Operating Procedures
Probation vs. Parole: What is the Difference?
FAQ’s – Board of Probation and Parole
American Probation and Parole Association
Stress Among Probation and Parole Officers and What Can Be Done About It